"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Last Sunday night I spent a good five minutes lying facedown on my couch, my head pressed into the crack between our old tan cushions, my arms pinned awkwardly under my chest, emitting a sequence of guttural moaning noises as my wife silently read Janet Maslin’s newly posted New York Times review of my novel, “This Bright River,” and then – after some gasps and one very disconcerting, empathy-laden, “Oh no” – attempted to describe the review’s contents aloud. I’d only been able to read the headline.
“It’s not positive,” she began firmly, and I pressed my head deeper into the couch, trying to get to its springs and asphyxiate. My wife, the sole adult member of our family, paraphrased the review: “Lack of purposefulness” was the first representative phrase she picked, and she next moved on to “jerry-built,” “desperate measure” and finally circled back around to “soggy.”
“No,” I said. “It does not say soggy.”
“It says soggy,” she repeated. “It does say soggy.”
As I am an atheist, I made noises directed at no one and nothing. I then, without removing my face from the couch-hole, picked up a throw pillow and gently placed it on the floor, blind.
My wife said nothing. It was 90 degrees in our living room, and the fan oscillated gloomily. Our cat, pleased, sensing a complicated kind of emotional dissolution in the works, jumped onto my back and sat down.
“It seems like she’s misread some things, though,” my wife said, and I was not able to hear her words quite yet.
I was busy being mad at myself. I’d set myself up for this, I knew that even as I unstuffed myself from the couch and went past my wife and the computer and directly toward the alcohol, but such is the unique combination of feelings I associate with the publication of a book, of any book, regardless of what it is, regardless of how long it took to write it, and (I would imagine) regardless of who the author is. I have some writer friends who claim to read none of their reviews, and some who claim to be indifferent, and although I can prove nothing, I believe that they are all, every one of them, lying through their teeth. It’s too easy. The Internet is too easy. “This Bright River” is my fourth book, but it’s been the same for each one, and they all have their distinct crucibles, and I’m sure it’ll be the same if I ever make it to 20: I read the reviews of my books and I am greatly affected by the reviews of my books. I can’t help it. They matter, both artistically and commercially. They scare me and I love them. How other people react is a part of storytelling. What reviewers say affects the book’s life. And because of this, the week before the reviews come, I am catatonic, greatly troubled by the storms of anticipation.
I say this just to set the context.
I got a drink, returned to the living room, and read the review for myself. Admittedly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I skipped over a few parts, looking for the gist, and in the end decided to post the review on Facebook and just be done with it – better to not pretend it hadn’t happened. A daily from the New York Times is a big deal for any author, and I was grateful to have it, whatever it said. I posted the review. I then went back and read the review again. I sipped my drink. I thought about it. I read these words:
We meet Ben, a onetime rich kid and stoner, who sustains some kind of head injury in the novel’s prologue. That knock on the head accounts for some of the vague, so-what nature of Ben’s perceptions about himself and others.
Hmm, I thought.
I read that line again.
I realized that Janet Maslin, who is not only one of the most accomplished critics in the world, but who is also the person who lifted my first novel, “The Cradle,” out of obscurity with a rave review three years before, had made a simple reading error within the first five pages of my novel.
She‘d mixed up two characters.
It was really important to not mix up those characters.
And she never realized it.
And by the end of the book, there was no ambiguity.
The comment about Ben’s perceptions aside, there was no way the plot could have made any kind of sense to her, given that error.
I continued drinking.
I cued up several episodes of “Storage Wars,” my go-to emotional coping mechanism.
The next morning, around the world, I’d fancy 100,000 people read that review.
Which was frustrating.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - -
About six months ago, the copy editor who worked with me on “This Bright River” queried me about the email addresses of my characters. I mean actually that: She asked me if I was sure the addresses I’d used were their addresses. (Paradox! Not real people!) There were several email exchanges within the book, and for all of them I had invented email addresses and just dropped them in as I went, planning to figure out something for them when the time came.
After I got the query I thought it might be fun to make a real email address for Ben, though, and to let readers email him, especially if they had questions about the puzzles in the book. Ben is a kind of wayfaring pothead version of Will Shortz, and likes to make up riddles and puzzles here and there. He sees life in terms of games. Most of the riddles and puzzles are answered within the book, and none are crucial for the story. Still, thinking it would be amusing – a meta-game for readers – I went to Gmail and made Ben’s address and posted it on my website. I invited people to write him if they had questions about anything in the book.
In the six months the address was up on my site, one person wrote to Ben. It was my friend Hannah.
But when I logged in to Ben’s account on that Monday after the Maslin review, badly hung over, I found a new email awaiting me.
It was not from Hannah. It was from an editor at the New York Times.
The subject line was “Did you get hit on the head?”
Here it is: (Our exchange is published with his permission)
Dear Mr. Hanson,
Given the vagaries of fictional life, I understand that you might not be able to answer this question, which has come up after one of our readers read the review of “This Bright River” that we published. But – in the prologue, are you the person who is hit on the head?
-Ed Marks, Culture Desk
It was a very, very odd feeling to read this after a sequence of odd (read: horrendous) feelings from the night before. I was glad that the Times wanted to talk about it, and I was impressed by the playfulness and the levity of the email, but I also thought: This may be the most sadistic moment of belated fact-checking in the history of mankind. The New York Times, the paper of record, had written a fictitious character to verify a fact.
Naturally, I wrote back in the voice of my book’s protagonist.
(Be warned: Spoilers abound.)
Thanks kindly for your note. If you were to read the first chapter of the book, you’d see that my cousin Wayne (before his untimely demise) and I were both great fans of the old “Who Am I” riddles, and the lack of any attributions in the prologue, as well as the absence of a date, was my humble attempt at creating a little mystery for the reader and planting a nagging question at the outset of the story: Who are these people? While I certainly intended the reader to wonder whether I was the one who’d been hit in the head in the opening scene, it was meant to be an open question.
But I’ll be clear, as you asked directly, although I’ll also warn you that the following would constitute a major spoiler. (At this point, however, the book having received a mortal wound of its own in your fine paper, I don’t think that it really matters): The two characters in the prologue – and I did my best to make this apparent in the last third of the book — are my cousin Wayne Hanson and a man named Michael Haverstead. Years before, Michael Haverstead attacked my sister at a party, and my cousin Wayne, after planning it for some time, took his revenge on Michael Haverstead that night. The scene we see in the prologue is the two of them at a bar — later that night, Wayne kills Michael and buries him on my uncle’s property in Upper Michigan. I was back in my hometown, St. Helens, and only 17 at the time of this incident. It took me 16 more years to figure out what happened, and why my cousin did what he did. It’s not me in the prologue — Ms. Maslin had it wrong.
Thanks so much for your interest in my story!
P.S. Not for nothing, but does Will Shortz ever take vacations? If he does, I would be happy to fill in for him.
Ed responded like so:
Thank you very much for clearing this up – and I’m so glad it wasn’t you that was hit on the head!
I’m sorry that Ms. Maslin misread the prologue. Unfortunately, we will have to run a correction. Typically in a case like this we would say it was A who was hit on the head, not B. But given your intention to have it be an open question, I’ll let our corrections czar know that I want to write the correction without identifying who the victim actually is.
Seems like you have had a bit of a rough life, and the last thing I’d want to do is to make it even rougher by giving it away.
Again, thanks very much for your help. And I’m sure Will Shortz does take a vacation once in a while. I’ll ask him if he needs a guest editor!
And Ben responded like so:
Thanks, Ed. That will help to take the sting away (a bit).
What’s crazy is that I haven’t had a rough life at all — I grew up very privileged and still managed to mess it up. Go figure.
Patrick has asked that you please also relay to Ms. Maslin that he very much appreciates her ongoing interest in his career.
Next Ed said:
Well, thank you for being so gracious.
And let me run something by you. I was just talking with our senior corrections editor, who is open to the idea of not giving away anything. Would a correction along these lines work for you:
The Books of the Times review on Monday, about “This Bright River” by Patrick Somerville, included a description of the prologue, in which an unidentified character is hit on the head. While the review said that the character who is hit is Ben Hanson, one of the book’s protagonists, Mr. Somerville says that it was meant to be an open question and that his intention was to leave the reader wondering whether it is in fact Ben.
And Ben said:
Thank you for including me in the conversation. I’m not afraid of the spoiler. That is accurate, but my (nonexpert) take is that it sounds very subjective — by the end of the book, it’s obvious that it’s not Ben Hanson. I don’t know how else to say it. No one else who’s read the book or talked to me about the book, and no other reviews, have made anything resembling this mistake. Maybe you could add a line at the end like “It is not,” or, “Later, the reader learns definitely that it is not Ben Hanson.” At the very least I would prefer that the correction definitively states, somewhere, that Ms. Maslin was wrong about a fact.
(If I really had my druthers, the paper would retract the whole thing, as I can’t imagine the rest of her interpretation standing after this initial mistake, but now I’m getting crazy, and I recognize that this is a book review, not a piece on Chechnya. I very, very much appreciate the correction. It helps a lot.)
But that is just my opinion, and I am not real.
And so on and so forth, for the rest of the day.
I don’t want to speak for Ed, but at this point, it is my belief that he and Ben have become friends. At the very least, they’re right on the cusp.
As of now they have exchanged a total of 38 emails.
One time Ben got mad and spoke in the voice of Patrick, but just once. He was sorry.
Ed was very kind.
So far Ben and Ed have discussed, outside of the review and the correction, the psychology of reading, Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon and Twitter.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
In the end nothing matters but the work. You can’t control how it’s taken, and the act of telling a story always involves a gap. Sometimes confusion is the risk of ambiguity–I say that to students all the time. It’s true at the fireside and it’s true in the parlor, and it’s true in made-up towns and New York. Two humans face one another, words come out of one, words go into the other mind through the ears and eyes of the listener. It’s a story. It’s simple. The gap is the thing. Make sure you build the bridge.
I will admit: A part of me (and a part of Ben) would like to believe that none of Janet Maslin’s points about “This Bright River” are valid because of this early flub of hers, but that’s not quite true, I don’t think: Deep down I know that it’s not so, and I think that may explain my facedown stuck-pig noises on Sunday, which were melodramatic even for me — something in me knew that if she got it and reviewed it, she was going to hate it. Too much had changed. I’d left behind elegant and gone looking for something else. My gut had done the math: She would have to if she had loved “The Cradle.” And despite its rather dire impact on the book itself, I don’t think the mix-up matters all that much. It remains mind-blowing to me that it happened, but I doubt the core of her conclusions would have been all that different without the mistake. The goddamned thing rambles, I know! It’s big and unruly and everywhere! But that’s why I love it! It had to be that way! But some people won’t love it! And hopefully some will!
That said, it sure as hell is not Ben in the opening scene! And it’s pretty obvious that it’s not!
I’m not glad that this happened, but it’s interesting that it did.
But perhaps even more interesting than all of this: How many ghost relationships do you have? I am drawn to them and like to ask people about theirs. Chat rooms? What are they, and what do they mean? Is it the Internet or something else? Subway eyes. People you’ve only met through email, or Facebook or Twitter? Authors you’ve read whom you may very well love, and I mean actually love, even though they’re dead? People who’ve commented on something you’ve done having never seen your face? People from afar who’ve changed your life? A customer service rep who somehow made your day, a random H.R. person who ruined your year? Even that lady on the On Star commercials — have you ever thought about her?
Our lives are filled up with these people; they often play a role in our pivot points. For the last few years I’ve felt some kind of warm benevolence whenever I’ve come across Janet Maslin’s name, grateful to her for her enthusiasm and generosity, for her choice to read my book and tell her readers about it. I’ve never met her and I doubt I ever will, but I’ll just say it like this and move on: She was a ghost friend of mine.
I like that, incidentally. Is “Ghost Friend” a good name for a book?
I will have to have Ben ask Ed.
Patrick Somerville is the author of the novels "This Bright River" and "The Cradle," and the story collections "Trouble" and "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature." He lives with his wife and son in Chicago, and he teaches creative writing in the MFA programs at Warren Wilson and Northwestern University.More Patrick Somerville.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)